It’s only fair that I declare a fairly strong bias before I proceed – At a time that I was elbowing my way through what was inspirational and what was shit about punk, a cassette of SUFFER and NO CONTROL was dropped in my lap. It was special stuff at a bountiful time when the world seemed to give us Bad Religion, Fugazi and Operation Ivy all at once, and anyone who has connected with these first renaissance Bad Religion albums knows that there’s very little to fault therein.
At least up to THE GREY RACE in 1996, the albums came in rapid-fire succession with unerring quality (after this, opinions are divisive) – That’s 7 albums in an 8-year period, undoubtedly the most fertile stretch of the band’s 4-decade existence.
Peerless lyrical and thematic content was a major factor in setting the band up for long shelf life. While vices have been an inescapable and fairly public part of line-up turbulence, they never seeped into the music to the point where either party anthems or recovery lamentations exist to any great degree in the Bad Religion songbook. This is rare for such a self-referential medium as punk rock.
Whatever the common analysis about everything you need from Bad Religion being contained in the first one, two or three albums (depending on what ageing grump you’re talking to), it was, and remains the most consistent and durable Southern Californian punk band.
And here I find myself in 2019, eagerly (maybe foolishly) awaiting the 17th studio album of a very different looking Bad Religion to that which presented TRUE NORTH in 2013 (guitarist Mike Dimkich and drummer Jamie Miller replacing Greg Hetson and Brooks Wackerman respectively). In particular, it feels strange that this is the first record without the mighty drum talents of Brooks Wackerman, even if honesty compels me to say that he was probably a little wasted within the Bad Religion equation.
This is the European limited vinyl edition of the album – originally meant to be a white/orange/yellow mix, the colour transpired to be a kind of radioactive mottled pink puce blend of all three. Epitaph Europe was very courteous with its email apology for “confusion and any inconvenience caused”. Given that vinyl types can be the world’s most awful people, I can’t help but wonder how many pedantic gimps were outraged by this shocking error?
AGE OF UNREASON definitely leans its hopes and reputation heavily on the opening double whammy of CHAOS FROM WITHIN and MY SANITY. These were used as its main tools of promotion via social media and a typically overpriced Record Store Day 7”. Both are double-dipped in everything Bad Religion successfully trades in and are arguably the best tracks here… Fast, melodic, hook heavy and fat free. And what ultimately unfolds as the albums tone is pretty much summed up in MY SANITY with the line “sometimes there’s no sane reason for optimism”.
DO THE PARANOID STYLE has more of a rudimentary lyrical trick going on which initially seems a little at odds with the BR canon in general, but the barrage is commendable and it works. THE APPROACH is a beautifully crafted 2.26 minutes of cynicism and discontent, presenting some of the album’s strongest melody and economic guitar leads to great effect… There are many places throughout the record where unmistakable Brian Baker fretboard frills shine in this regard.
8 minutes and 58 seconds in and it’s clear that AGE OF UNREASON is most likely heading toward a scream of frustration at the antics of the current US president – somewhat of a one track mind for Bad Religion given the thematic range of their oeuvre, but maybe this is an inappropriate time for the self introspection or wider social indignation of their last two albums.
LOSE YOUR HEAD is the first gearshift. This is very much the sort of mid paced rock-punk that characterised the band’s Atlantic releases. Apparently it started life as a fast track and I wasn’t too keen on it at first – part of my ongoing love for this band is a very particular lyrical weight and substance – but it is as intended, an undeniable earworm, and when the album’s not playing, it has become the first track I think of, for better or worse! END OF HISTORY gets a pass in the context of the album but is difficult to comment on one way or another as a stand-alone track… it’s kind of just there… recognisably Bad Religion but considerably distant from the most inspired peaks of the album.
Side two kicks in with great promise – THE AGE OF UNREASON is another of the heavy hitters, and before the loud guitars kick in, CANDIDATE might initially be mistaken for an off-cut from Greg Graffin’s recent MILLPORT album, but it unfolds as a mid pacer with a distinctly old-school BR flavour to it. Storming past at a speed the band has rarely functioned at, FACES OF GRIEF is impassioned and exasperated one minute and five seconds of Bad Religion doing hardcore (the real stuff, not short haired metallers in vests). OLD REGIME packs a similar punch but pulls this anger back into a classic BR format with some of the best lyrical venom AGE OF UNREASON has to offer.
What unfortunately makes the album seem of dubious quality on a straight through listen is the run of tracks that follows – BIG BLACK DOG, DOWNFALL and SINCE NOW. The final track, the excellent WHAT TOMORROW BRINGS feels like it was always going to be positioned as the album’s thematic resolve, but the band struggle to bridge the remaining gap on side two with anything substantial. Instead, we’re presented with the three aforementioned lukewarm trudgers hidden away where it is hoped no one will notice. There’s some Keith Richards riffing and a couple other aspirations beyond what makes familiar high-grade Bad Religion material, but the results are simply tedious.
The positive note of WHAT TOMORROW BRINGS should be a perfect bookend, but what precedes it isolates the track and the impact/intention is slightly muted as a result.
How this all sits with any given Bad Religion aficionado is dependent on what category they’re in – It seems that every album the group has released since RECIPE FOR HATE is heralded as amazing and shit at the same time… even more so now that rabid petulance is loud and instantaneous – Halfwits bay for blood every time it’s not another SUFFER and celebrate when a “Bad Religion plays the Bad Religion songbook” record like TRUE NORTH is released. Evidently, change is forbidden.
AGE OF UNREASON’s imperfections are clear… The flow of the record is strange and it seems to get bored of itself half way through side two. Thematically, it’s a little repetitive – while discourses within the central theme are inventive, the general message sometimes seems stuck on repeat.
In its favour, the highs are marvelous. Greg Graffin’s vocals are still everything you expect them to be. There are no blatant/accidental rewrites of Bad Religion tracks that already exist and the new guard has found solid footing within the band. Jamie Miller’s contribution is a very different style of drumming to that which came directly before, but realistically, what does a vocal and melody driven band like Bad Religion need in this regard? They were spoilt by drumming virtuosity for a long time but did just fine through their “classic period” with Bobby Schayer and Pete Finestone.
AGE OF UNREASON adds a handful of gems to the Bad Religion songbook but is doubtful to go down as one of their classics… Any new product the band puts out into the world is up against one hell of a catalogue – Inevitably, there’ll be fluctuations in quality.